Reflections on John 3:14-15 Part 1


The Bible in Your life and Your Life in the Bible

"whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:15)



We have seen in Genesis the creation of man and his separation from God due to the work of Satan and, in John 3:1-10, we have seen how union can be restored by being born of water and the Holy Spirit which allows us to enter into the Kingdom of God. Now we come to the heart of the matter, that which brings about this new birth: acceptance of Jesus Christ his death on the cross and his resurrection. The passage brings us to a choice similar to that in the Garden of Eden, the choice of the tree of life as opposed to remaining under the curse, consequence of the original choice of man.

The first verse in our text, verse 14, highlights the importance of the direction of our gaze. It is where we direct our gaze, what we focus on, that determines the direction in which we move. When driving, we normally look at the road in front of us and the car moves straight ahead. When distracted by something on our right or left and our gaze is redirected and there is a tendency for the car to veer slightly in the direction we are looking. We cannot afford to be distracted for long. Our gaze determines our direction. So it is in the spiritual life. What our spirit gazes on or focuses on determines the direction in which we are moving. Where we are to direct our gaze is the concern of this passage.

What do we normally look up to, what do we normally focus on in our lives when in need? Do we focus on ourselves, our own efforts and strength, intelligence, on others, on circumstances, on wealth? This passage invites us to look at the only person who can save - Jesus Christ uplifted on the cross and raised from the dead, the one who died but who is now very much alive and guiding his people to the Promised Land.


In verse 14 the cross is associated with the Old Testament episode of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on a standard while the Israelites were being led from Egypt towards the Promised Land. By gazing on the serpent they were cured from the mortal venom of the snakes.1  

Moses pleaded for the people, and the Lord said to him, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; whoever has been bitten and then looks at it shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a standard. Whoever was bitten looked at the bronze serpent and remained alive. (Numbers 21:8, 9)

They were not saved from death by anything that depended on logic, human intelligence or human strength. These do not lead people to look at a serpent on a standard in such a situation. That would be absurd, totally illogical.

they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned towards it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all. (Wisdom 16:6, 7)
They were saved by faith in God’s promise which entailed simply looking at the uplifted serpent on a standard or pole and accepting, in faith, their salvation from God in the midst of danger.


This Old Testament episode is used by John to point towards the crucifixion, resurrection and the salvation given to all who trustingly gaze on the crucified Lord and Saviour.

As is frequent in John’s Gospel words and expressions are often used to point to two different dimensions of life: the physical and the spiritual. The physical interacts with the spiritual; the physical foreshadows the spiritual. The expression “lifted up” is used both in reference to the physical lifting up of Jesus on the cross and, in the light of the faith of the Christian community, it suggests his glorification and exaltation through the resurrection and ascension. In both situations we have the idea of lifting or rising.

Also the idea of exaltation is emphasised in the expression “Son of Man” (v. 14), which probably alludes to Daniel 7:13, 14:
I saw one like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was brought into his presence. Dominion, honour and kingship were given him, and all peoples and nations of every language served him. His dominion is eternal and shall never pass away; his kingdom will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13, 14)
Jesus is saying that he is that son of man coming with the clouds of heaven, a King whom all nations would serve and to whom would be given eternal authority and dominion and this is a breath taking assertion of the divine nature of he who would be “lifted up”.

These allusions to the Old Testament and others should have been meaningful to Nicodemus if he had been spiritually enlightened and not imprisoned in his legalistic and institutionalised mindset. These spiritual truths, however, could not penetrate the symbolic ‘darkness of the night’ in Nicodemus (John 3:2).

1  It is interesting to note that the symbol of a snake coiled around a pole is often seen in chemists today. This Old Testament episode may well be a source of this use of the symbol predating Greek mythology where the same symbol can also be found.

In some ancient civilisations the snake was associated with fertility as the snake is said to be able to regenerate body parts. It was also associated with death because of its deadly venom. Hence we see that here in Numbers the serpent is associated with both death and life. Hence the association of the bronze snake on the standard with the death of Christ followed by his resurrection.

Next page John 3:14-15 Reflections part 2 >>
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